|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
As I said, everyone agrees that the fund is inadequate, and we cannot obtain details of how it will work. The FAS was announced on 14 May, five months ago. Can the Minister for Pensions give us the answers to a few simple questions? When does he expect the first payment to be made? Will the scheme exclude victims of solvent wind-ups? Does he still intend to exclude victims of wind-ups that commenced between May 2004 and May 2005, when the pension protection fund is supposed to open its doors? The Minister is not writing down my questions. Perhaps he has a very good memory.
Will payments be means-tested? Will they be taxed? Has the Minister made any progress at all on extracting contributions from industry to top up the £400 million? Will he look again at our proposal to use unclaimed assets to top up the FAS to the necessary limit? For the information of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), the Government are already using unclaimed assets. If he looks at the small print of the Budget, he will see that the Chancellor is trying to grab them for another purpose altogether.
The reality is that although pensioners are already suffering, the Government are moving as slowly as possible on this massive problem. Surprise, surprise! Their timetable seems to put everything off until next spring at the earliest. I wonder why.
Meanwhile, I understand that Labour Back Benchers, who have substantial numbers of affected constituents, people who have lost their pension rights, are being urged not to rock the boat and not to express in public their concerns about the inadequacy of the scheme. It would be shameful if that pressure stopped any of them doing so in the debate, although it is interesting that none of the Labour Members who has spoken, often eloquently, in previous debates has raised the issue today.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Coop):
I have raised the plight of pensioners of the former British United Shoe Machinery Ltd., a Leicester-based firm in which many North-West Leicestershire people
13 Oct 2004 : Column 381
worked, and neither the Government nor the DWP have made any contact with me, private or public, e-mail or paper, that suggests what the hon. Gentleman implied a moment or two ago.
On the broader pensions policy issues, why wait to do something? During the debate, we all heard about the growing consensus on long-term pensions policy. We heard about that with great eloquence from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). Mr. Rodney Bickerstaffe, again, had this to say:
"The interesting thing is that a consensus is now emerging amongst many different and diverse groups, who all agree that we need a much bigger basic state pension for every older person that is linked to earnings and free from means-testing."
The answer is obvious: the Governmenthaving sat on their hands for seven years and presided over the collapse of pensions, both public and privatenow want to put the whole thing off until after the next election. Assuming that happens in May or June next year, it seems terribly convenient that the final report of the Turner commission is not expected until next autumn.
Mr. Tom Harris: To help the debate come the general election, is the hon. Gentleman confirming to the House that the Conservative party will include in its manifesto detailed proposals to shape pensions in the long term? In other words, will the Conservative manifesto pre-empt the final volume of Turner's report and include all the details that the hon. Gentleman accuses the Government of not putting into our own manifesto?
Mr. Waterson: Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that categoric assurance, as he has asked for it. What is the point of an election manifesto if it does not deal with these matters? Indeed, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made that point when he said that he did not wish to see his party go naked into the next election campaign.
I urge the Government, for once on pensions, to be bold. The Turner report sets out in painstaking and sometimes painful detail the scale of the problem, plus the only possible solutions. The Government should now come up with their own proposals, and it is no good the Secretary of State going on about a knee-jerk reaction. Seven years is hardly knee-jerk.
What about the perfectly sensible suggestion made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead to bring forward Turner's final report to perhaps February next year? That would allow Turner some time to consult on the interim report. It would allow us all to digest his final conclusions. Perhaps more importantly, it would also allow the Government to go into the next election campaign with some clearly defined proposals on pensionsotherwise, what do they have in mind? Will they have a blank page in their manifesto where it says,
13 Oct 2004 : Column 382
"Pensions"? My right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Mr. Dorrell) made that point, again eloquently, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait).
The Labour party was much less reticent on the subject of pensions at the 1997 election. I received a letter only today from Mr. Richard Sharp, who is the chairman of the south-east region of the National Pensioners Convention. He enclosed a briefing produced by the Labour party before the 1997 election and asked me to use it to
"publicly denounce them for the charlatans they are on the basis of pre-election commitments."
[Interruption.] Those are his words, not mine, and I hope that the lead charlatan is taking careful note. The document is headed, "The Tories have betrayed pensioners", so hon. Members will get the drift, and it includes the names of the current Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It says:
"Millions of people face poverty in retirement."
"The Tories propose to abolish the basic state pension".
"Labour will defend the basic state pension, without means-testing, and ensure that it remains the foundation of our pensions policy."
Hard as I look from one of end that disgraceful document to the other, I can find no reference to a promise to take £5 billion a year from pension funds if the Labour party won that election. [Interruption.] At least I have had an apology, which I am happy to accept from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), about that campaign. Members should have been there.
The plain truth is that, by putting off decisions now, the Government are condemning a raft of pensioners to penury in old age or utter dependence on degrading means-tested benefits. That is borne out entirely by the Turner report. That is why we need Conservative policies such as restoring the earnings link, rolling back means-testing and abolishing the annuities rule. We have been exhaustively through the eight-point plan, or the 10-point plan as the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West described it when allowing for inflation. However, just as important is our lifetime savings account that is designed to encourage people not already savingthe 9 million whom we have heard aboutto do so.
These are all well costed, well thought-out proposals. [Laughter.] They are designed to tackle the pensions crisis, but if they cause such hilarity among Labour Members, why do they not come up with their own ideas rather than having a self-imposed moratorium between now and next autumn that takes them conveniently, or perhaps not, through the election campaign?
We heard from the Liberal Democrats. Their policy is designed only to help the over-75s. They would scrap the contributory principle altogether, and that argument was effectively demolished by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead. Despite what the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) told me in a previous debate, they intend to erode tax relief for those making pension
13 Oct 2004 : Column 383
contributions and, as usual with the Liberal Democrats, the figures are, of course, not properly costed. Perhaps it does not really matter, because their policy is about as relevant to who will be in government after the next election as the UK Independence party's policy to renationalise the railways. It deserves about as much attention.
Where is this Government's big idea on pensions, or even its small idea? The sad fact is that, where pensions are concerned, the Government are an ideas-free zone. The Secretary of State in his conference speech ruled out increasing the pension age, which is one of the main solutions set out by Turner. We had an interesting exchange at Question Time on Monday when I put to the Minister for Pensions his comments at a fringe meeting at the party conference. He seemed to take offence at the thought that he had referred to the pension credit as a
"short-to-medium-term policy only",
"I repeat that we are proud of it."[Official Report, 11 October 2004; Vol. 425, c. 18.]
In today's debate, however, the Secretary of State has suggested that the pension credit will not be there indefinitely. It is clear that there is a debate going on within the Government, and we get occasional glimpses of it down long narrow corridors. However, it would be rather good if some of it could be put to the electorate when the time comes.
At the moment, we have to take it that the Government are as committed to expanding means-testing as ever, thereby deterring more saving in this countryagain, saving is one of the Turner prescriptions to end the crisis. Let me remind the House of what he said in his report:
"Means-testing within the state system both increases complexity and reduces, and in some cases reverses, the incentives to save via pensions which the tax system creates."
We had the false dawn of the speech by the Minister for Pensions to a fringe meeting at the party conference, but the Government seemed to have rowed back from thatan issue referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill). They have also been quiet on compulsion, another issue on which the final report will presumably reach a conclusion next year. In fairness, the Secretary of State said that he had an open mind on this issue, but he seems to have an open mind on almost every issue affecting pensions in this country. It is probably time he began to reach provisional conclusions about what should happen.
What does that leave? Extra taxesa point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field)and I do not suppose we shall hear much about them this side of an election. How typical of the Government to heap extra taxes on individuals to pay for a decent pension! We are looking at yet more third-term taxes from Labour, but on the welfare state, as on so much else, it does not deserve a
13 Oct 2004 : Column 384
third chance, let alone a third term. If the Government are not prepared to take the action needed on the nation's pensions, they should make way for someone who will. I urge the House to support our motion.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|